Ruth Wescott Duncan




Ruth Wescott Duncan




Ruth Wescott Duncan


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Fairfax, Virginia


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today is January 21, 2004. I am interviewing Ruth Duncan from Annandale, Virginia. Her number: VA22302-006. The interview is taking place in Fairfax, Virginia, at my home. Evelyn Salinger, interviewer. Thank you for participating in Quilters' Save Our Stories, Ruth. First, I would like to ask you, where have you come from? Have you lived here all your life?

Ruth Duncan (RD): Well, as you know, I am originally from Connecticut. I was born in Milford, but I was mostly raised in Greenwich, in a part of Greenwich called Riverside. That's important later. I came here to the Washington area in 1967, so that's 37 years or so ago and have lived in Northern Virginia ever since. I did not come directly from Riverside. I lived at the University of Connecticut for a number of years both as a student and a worker.

ES: Will you tell us what was your major in school and what were your working jobs?

RD: Well, I was an English major at UConn and then I went to graduate school at Simmons in Boston and got a degree in Library Science. So, I have a Master's in Library Science. And my career was in Library.

ES: So, your first jobs were also [as] librarian.

RD: Actually, almost all of my jobs were library. I started working in the library in Old Greenwich when I almost fifteen. It was only semi-legal. And I worked there throughout high school--and then two summers after high school--two college summers. The only non-library job I've ever held besides baby-sitting, was two summers working for my aunt, who was a pre-school teacher, running preschoolers at summer camp. I sent them home tired. I felt that that was my contribution. [laughter.]

ES: Very good. And so, you continued as a librarian into this area here?

RD: Yes.

ES: And for how long?

RD: When we first came here, I worked for the Fairfax [County.] Library for about 18 months until my son was born and then I quit just before he was born. And then after he was born, my husband was going to go back to graduate school, and so I needed to get a job. I worked at the Alexandria Library for something over seventeen years. And that is my career.

ES: Very good.

RD: I ended up the branch librarian at the Duncan Branch Library on Commonwealth Avenue in the Del Ray section of Alexandria. That becomes important later.

ES: Right. Well, I could ask you how first of all how you got interested in quilting.

RD: Well, I got interested in quilting early. We moved to Riverside, that's Connecticut, when I was four and a half, in the fall in time for me to start kindergarten. And when the weather got cold – We moved to my grandfather's house which was my mother's family's ancestral home. And when it got cold, Mom and Grandpa consulted and got this quilt out and I was told that I had to be very careful of it, because it had been made by Grandpa's mother. And Grandpa at that point was something like seventy-five years old and seemed a hundred and fifty to me. The idea that he'd even had a mother was just myth. But anyway, I got the quilt, and I loved it. I slept under it every winter from age four and a half on. And when I left home, to have my own apartment, I asked that it come with me. And it did. And then it was a bedspread for a number of years. And so I had that quilt a long time.

ES: Perhaps at this time you would tell me about that quilt and about your quilt that you brought today.

RD: Well, that quilt and the one I brought are quite similar. They're not the same quilt. My old quilt that Grandpa's mother made is now in the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut, because the ancestral home I spoke of was--my Grandfather Ferris was the son of founders of Greenwich, Connecticut. So, the Ferris family goes back to the beginning there. And the Historical Society was very pleased to have all of the family quilts. I was able to give them six generations' worth, out of our ancestral home.

ES: That's amazing.

RD: And anyway, the one that was special for me was a twenty-five patch, light and dark with red centers. And sashing which was slightly wider than the square unit of the twenty-five patch, so that the intersecting cross pieces, the squares in the center of the sashing, are larger than the squares in the block. The old one was done in very, very fine ladies' dress goods. My great grandmother had been either apprenticed to a dressmaker or had gone to dressmaking school in New York City as a young woman. The quilt has been dated as third quarter of the 19th century and has some silk in it. It's silk and fine, fine cotton. It's a very soft, good feeling quilt. Some of the fabrics are a kind of twill weave.

ES: Were you able to wash it through all those years?

RD: Never.

ES: I wondered, because of the silk.

RD: No. In my family, quilts are not washed. They are taken very good care of. They are aired. But if one takes proper care, they don't have spills, they don't have problems. The fabric occasionally gives out, but that's about it. Now, the quilt that I've brought is my version of that quilt, since I have given it to the Historical Society. And because the great-grandmother who made it was named Mercy Jane Hunter Ferris, and by a quirk of fate, one of my grandchildren, that is to say my step-grandchildren, is named Hunter--his first name. I made quilts for all the grandchildren. And Hunter's quilt is the one that's like my great-grandmother's, so it is a twenty-five patch. But I have far more access to other colors. Great-grandmother had a limited color palate and a limited number of fabrics to work with. And her artistic use of them is, I think, outstanding. I have a far greater number of fabrics and some of mine have little pictures in, like the whale and the kitty and the ship and things like that. And hers, of course, did not.

ES: It looks at first glance that it's a charm quilt except for the repeated sort of aqua green in the corner sashings. But you say that there are some repeated here?

RD: Oh yes. There are lots of repeated fabrics.

ES: It is hard to see right off.

RD: Oh yes. There are lots of repeated fabrics. When you've got forty-two squares of twenty-five each then it looks scrambled all the way.

ES: It's a beautiful quilt.

RD: The difference between mine and the one Great-grandmother made is that mine, after the modern habit, has borders and hers does not. In the old days they made the quilt as big as they had to, to cover the bed and that was that. But in the modern usage there are borders. So, I have put borders. But after my own habit, there is only a small inner border at the top. And the regular borders are on the two sides and the bottom.

ES: That's good. That's very, very, very nice. Thank you for bringing that one today. Let's go on into your quilting itself. What are your favorite types of quilts to make? What have you been doing?

RD: Well. I guess there are lots of favorite parts. I like working to get the idea for a quilt. If I don't just have an idea, I frequently poke through one of the books of blocks, so that I look at the shapes and whatnot of quilt blocks. And I generally decide, oh this is an appealing block, or that is an appealing block and then I will work my quilt around that block. That's fun. And I also enjoy sitting down with graph paper and fooling around. I cannot draw anything, even with a ruler. But I do have a sense of what I mean. Other people may not know or understand, but I know what I mean when I put what I put on the graph paper. [laughter.]

ES: But you seem to like geometrics very much.

RD: Yes. I am less a floral person and more a geometric person. Many years ago, when I was young, it became evident that my sister could draw, and I couldn't. She got books on how to draw and I got books on geometric patterns, because conceivably a person without artistic ability could make geometric patterns on paper.

ES: You seem to have a good color sense.

RD: I love color. When I was a little girl, I used to go to Woolworth's. And hang over the section of embroidery flosses, because that was just a sea of gorgeous colors, and I would agonize over which one I liked the best today. And perhaps, if finances would allow, I would buy that color, if I could make the decision. It was terribly hard. But I love color.

ES: So, do you have certain favorite colors that you tend to go to? Or do you use the gamut?

RD: I do quilts in all colors. Probably except black. I use very little black. So that's not to say that something vivid with a black background does not get used. That does. I don't generally use black--everything else. In fact, I once made a quilt that had a sort of a school bus yellow that I think I made the whole quilt because somebody said that that was an awful color that you could not possibly make it look good. And so, I made it the center of a brown and yellow log cabin. And it looked fine. [laughter.]

ES: Great. We were saying your favorite parts of quilting. Are there any other favorite parts before we go to your least favorite parts?

RD: I do like piecing. I find piecing relaxing. And I like assembly. Sandwiching makes me nervous.

ES: What do you mean by sandwiching?

RD: Well, putting the back, the batt and the top together.

ES: Do you usually baste it all together?

RD: I usually baste it. But I don't baste it nearly as rigorously as you do, for example. You baste the living daylights out of it. I baste it sort of. And I use a hoop when I quilt. I enjoy the quilting process, too. I use a hoop rather than a frame, because that way it can travel more easily.

ES: How many hours a day would you say that you are able to do now that you are retired?

RD: I have been retired ever since I have been quilting seriously, but I--I don't know. I suppose it's some form of quilting activity on the typical day involves an hour or maybe two. But lately I've had an awful lot of atypical days, so I haven't gotten much done in the last week or two. My first quilt was made when I was six. I had my tonsils and adenoids out and my ears got infected, so I was in bed for a couple of weeks and missed December essentially of the first grade. And my mother was going crazy trying to keep me entertained and in bed. So, she taught me to knit and to sew. And my first project sewing was a quilt for my doll.

ES: Was that a Nine Patch?

RD: Well, it was a who-knows-how-many patch, because it was just squares put together. I don't remember how many. And it was tied eventually. Mom made a quilting frame by turning a chair upside down. I had never seen it done. That was the only time I ever saw her do anything like that. I did not know that she knew how but the doll quilt survived for all the years that I played with dolls. Then it died. [laughter.]

ES: That's very good. So, you really got started very young.

RD: But I did not do anything else again for another twenty-five years.

ES: Do you have a least favorite part of quilting?

RD: Well.

ES: Do you do machine -- business of quilting?

RD: I do very little machine. I'm mostly a traditional hand quilter. My machine and I are not close. We're never going to be very close, I'm afraid. It's smarter than I am, and I resent it. I am more accurate by hand than I am by machine.

ES: How about telling us what you do with all your quilts. How many have you made?

RD: I have no idea, but it's dozens because I make different kinds of quilts. I made, for example, for each of the grandchildren and a couple of the younger nieces and nephews and the grandniece and the grandnephew, baby quilts for all of them. And I have also made adult quilts for all except the very youngest grandnephew which is the one in progress. Now, those don't get handed out until they are of full age and responsible. My son, who will be thirty-five next month, has not gotten his yet because he's not responsible enough yet so I have a storage problem.

ES: Oh, yes.

RD: I've also made a bunch of other quilts that are just for me, like the Double Wedding Ring that I have not assigned to anybody and a couple of others that I made just because I wanted to. And then I have made a lot for community work projects, for the Main Street Child Development Center, for ACCA [Annandale Christian Community Action.] and things like that. These are smaller quilts like three by four feet, or something like that, for preschoolers to use for naps or whatever. I've made dozens of those. Those I do by machine usually and tie them rather than quilt.

ES: So, first or all you have a huge problem of storing all your quilts at home, and how about your fabrics?

RD: Oh, my fabric stash is embarrassing. Fortunately, my husband, Stuart, looks upon my stash as an investment so he is more positively aligned with it than many husbands. I've heard stories of people who have to kind of sneak their fabric in when he's not there. But my husband, he may sigh but he doesn't object. [laughter.]

ES: Very good. What quilting groups do you belong to and give us the history of your starting in a quilting group?

RD: Well, I have been with Cardinal Quilters since [1987.], I guess, formally. This is where my work at the library comes back in as being important. I got the job as the branch librarian at the Duncan Branch Library in 1979, the summer of '79. And that's when I first met the Cardinal Quilters. [interruption here for a discussion of the date for the beginning of Ruth's membership in the Cardinal Quilters.] The quilters met there and I saw them and I had been interested in quilting all along, but I had not had any opportunity. And there they were, meeting where I worked. Well, the stories that other people have told about my nose to the door of the quilt room while they were in it are true, because I wanted so badly to be part of it. They were so sweet to me because they had me judging the lap robe contest for the things, they used to make for nursing homes. They used to make little quilts for putting over the knees, or laps. They would have a contest every year in December as part of their Christmas program. And it would be judged and somehow, I don't know what made them think I had any qualifications, [laughter.] but I was the judge and so I picked the ones I thought were the best in the different categories they told me about.

ES: Very good.

RD: And so, I had a working relationship with a number of the quilters for several years. In 1986, I was a member of Beth Ford's famous last beginning quilting class. Linda Freeman was in it; Ruth Noonan was in it and several others. It was a wonderful class because everybody was so good, I felt that I had to work very hard to measure up to these talented people. I do not know that I did but found my own direction. And that is how I really learned about quilting. Thanks to Beth. And I retired, not everybody gets to retire at forty-five, but I did. I retired in December of 1986 and went to the Christmas party that year at somebody's house. I can't remember now whose and joined formally, with dues and all in January of 1987.

ES: Very good. And you continued with them ever since?

RD: I am still there.

ES: And during the years did you take responsibilities in that group?

RD: Well, they kind of welcomed me with a railroad. In 1987 and '88, I was the secretary. In '89 and '90, I was the president. I got to sit out for four years then. Then in 1995 and '96, I was secretary again. From '97 to 2000, I was president. In 2001 and 2002, I was the sunshine committee. I wrote notes to people who were sick or what not. And I am the secretary again for '03 and '04. So, I have had my moments with them.

ES: Yes, you have.

RD: The only reason I know this is that I went back, and I checked the minutes. Or else, I would not have been able to give you these dates. [laughter.]

ES: What size of a group has that always been, the Cardinal Quilters?

RD: Well, it used to be bigger, because it reflects in many ways the back-to-work business. It was formed in the late seventies at just about the time that women started having to work. So, the ladies who were in the club were older people who were retired, usually, or were people who did not work outside the home--which were few. So, the result is that over the years with people moving away and unfortunately more often, people dying, it is a much smaller group than it used to be. And we have not picked up new members because we meet during the day, and everybody works. So, we are the remnant of our former selves. And I am shocked to realize that I am one of the younger ones. [laughter.]

ES: What other quilt-oriented activities do you do, where else?

RD: There is a quilt group at my church [Little River United Church of Christ, in Annandale, VA.] that I'm a member of. It does not have a name and it is truly my kind of group because there are no officers, nobody's in charge, there's not a program, you just come and do your thing. One of the other women in the group calls it 'stitch and bitch' and I think that's just about it. It's perfect. [laughter.]

ES: And do you do some things for your church through that group sometimes?

RD: Oh, yes. At need, we have made hands quilts. You know the kind with the embroidered hands that have been traced onto fabric.

ES: Embroidered or appliquéd?

RD: Appliquéd. Sorry, appliqué and I are foreign, inimical. They are machine appliquéd, which is taking appliqué to the power negative.

ES: So, you trace people's hands.

RD: Yes, members of the congregation trace their hands on fabric and then we transfer it by Wonder Under onto muslin and then put them together.

ES: Do you usually have signatures accompanying those?

RD: Not necessarily of individuals' hands. We put them together and then have a day when there are pens at the church and we ask the congregation to sign them. And these are done for people in affliction of some sort. Major affliction I mean, not just a broken leg.

ES: A death in the family?

RD: It depends. You just kind of know when it's going to be appropriate.

ES: That's very nice. So, you have made a lot of those over the years.

RD: Seven or eight of those, I think. But that's a group. And we made a big one for a departing pastor. And we've also made stoles for them--quilted stoles.

ES: How nice.

RD: Trapunto. And one of them was appliqué.

ES: And they are usually certain traditional colors for times of year?

RD: Yes. The appliqué one was for Pentecost. And it's all red flames--all different reds with a white dove. It's outstanding. Original design by some of the other quilters in it.

ES: Are there any banners in your church made by--

RD: Yes, there are, but they were not made by any members of that group.

ES: Have you done any teaching or publishing?

RD: I'm not a quilt teacher or publisher. I am just a quilter. I saw that other people early on seemed to make a choice. They either taught or they did. And I chose to do.

ES: Good for you. Have you ever been in any contests?

RD: I did enter a few things quite a while ago in the APVA Quilt and Loom Show in Fredericksburg which is nearest non-QU [Quilters Unlimited.] thing. APVA, I think, is Association for Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. But anyway, in 1989 and in 1990, each year one of my quilts got a third prize. That's the best I've ever done.

ES: Very good. Are there any other crafts that you like to do or have time to do?

RD: Well, I don't do it much anymore, but I've been a knitter, harking back to my extreme youth. I made mittens for years. I made sweaters. I made an argyle afghan--even and a big sampler with fifty or sixty different patterns.

ES: I am going to ask you now about things other than yourself. What do you think makes a quilt great?

RD: Well, it's a combination of harmonious pattern and color usage. Some of them sing. Some of them really sing. You know when you see it. Some of them hum a little but the really good one's sing.

ES: How have quilts been special for American women through the years?

RD: Well, I look at Great-grandmother's and the other ones in the family and think that very likely they were an artistic expression as well as a warm cover for the family. Even though they didn't have anything like the variety that we have, they made good use of things they did have. And the balance and things like that in the better ones can be wonderful. Balance is one of my things in quilts. If it doesn't balance right, and I'm not quite sure exactly what I mean by that, but it's just kind of a look. It looks right.

ES: Do you have any other comments? Or anything you can tell about specific projects you have done?

RD: Well, the only other thing else I can think of is that I am a finisher. There are people that have a hundred fifty thousand unfinished things stowed in what they hope is in dark corners. I have relatively few of those, because I am a finisher. I will do it and get it done. The other thing is that, for me the most important part of quilt making is the actual making. Once it's finished, I am frequently less interested in it, than when I was while I was making it. And occasionally, in the quilting of a big one, it got tedious. I feel very pressed and pressing myself toward the end to finish it before I get sick of it. Sometimes it's close. But the better ones, I like even after they're done.

ES: Do you take yours out and look at them now and then?

RD: It is such a pain to do. I do not do it often--not nearly as often as I should, merely to keep them folded differently, and keep them from aging unduly in the box.

ES: Do you have any kind of a record of what you've done? Do you keep an album or stories?

RD: I started keeping a quilt log early on and at the beginning I was religious about it and now I've gotten a little bit parochial. So, I do still try to keep on a piece of graph paper, some kind of record of the pattern with perhaps a drawing of the block, a setting how many squares it's going to have, what colors the sashing is going to be. I don't usually make any comments about the quilting pattern because that depends--it tells me when I'm starting to do that what I am supposed to do. And it is also perhaps worthy of note that I discovered that I am a Connecticut type of quilter in spite of the fact that I am Virginia quilter trained, because my quilts tend to have less quilting per square inch than many, and when I took all of my family quilts up, there was a lady from the Connecticut Quilt Preservation Project. And she remarked--she asked me about one in particular which was more heavily quilted than the others and suspected that it may not have been made in Connecticut, because it was so heavily quilted. And I had thought that the others were really regular. My own personal taste demands less quilting--possibly because I am lazy. [laughter.] But I do not quilt as much as many Virginia quilters--for density.

ES: Looking at your quilt here, can see that you do very small stitches and it looks very straight? You so a very fine job with your quilting. Lovely. Well if there is nothing else that we need to cover, maybe we should just--

RD: I think we can turn the machine off.

ES: Okay. Well, thank you very, very much. You really did a good job today, covering everything.

[tape ends.]


“Ruth Wescott Duncan,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,